18 May 2020
Through time: The end of WWI and a new threat
By Rodney Cavalier and Geoff Armstrong (Part III of III)
The War is over and the SCG is solvent. Membership numbers recover and sport emerges from its hibernation. As the nation celebrates its returned soldiers, there comes a realisation that they have brought back with them more than their lives. Spanish flu closes borders, the SCG becomes a quarantine station. It is a challenge no one foresaw, one that is eerily similar to today.
The year began with membership renewals at 577 to be augmented by the admission of 274 new members. Another 371 will be admitted in February. One member enquired about concessions available to those who kept their membership during the War. The answer is none.
Solvent and with every reason to be confident about the immediate future, reasserting their place in cricket and sport generally, Trustees authorise the purchase of missing numbers in its collection of Wisden almanacks. They remain on display in the Trustee Reserve of the Noble Bradman Messenger Stand.
A debt of honour sees the Trustees create bronze plaques in memory of Victor Trumper and Tibby Cotter, Test cricket stalwarts who did not survive the War. The unveiling took place at the first interstate first-class game in peace time. The plaques are viewable to this day in the dining room of the Members Pavilion.
Trustees, like much of Australia and the West, expected victory and peace to mean the once world they knew was going to return as it had been. Honouring the past was a nation’s expression of that confidence.
The early meetings of 1919 affirmed the right to be confident about the future. Cash reserves reached £2614 in February. Financial membership was 992.
Returned soldiers staying at the ground inhibited building works. Their presence will be more consequential than interfering with building works. A critical mass of the returning AIF brought with them a deadly strain of influenza that was called “Spanish flu” even though it started in Kansas, USA. The SCG briefly becomes a staging post for those not resident in Sydney to pause before going home.
On February 6, less than a fortnight after the Vic and Tibby memorials were unveiled, the troopship Argyllshire arrived in Sydney. With fears the influenza pandemic that had wreaked devastation in Europe was about to hit Sydney, 900 soldiers from the ship were quarantined — first onboard and then at a snake-infested camp at North Head. The men mutinied, wearing face masks as they marched in unison to Manly Wharf, with the intention of making it to Victoria Barracks in Paddington. After being ferried to Circular Quay, they were escorted to the SCG, where they remained in quarantine for three more days before finally being demobilised. The men were not allowed to leave until they were cleared of the flu. Trustees were looking at exacting charges for services and repairs occasioned by the military presence.
Cricket’s administration was anxious to resume first-class games. The NSW and Victorian Cricket Associations met within a week of the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918 and resolved to resume first-class cricket without putting the Sheffield Shield in contest.
The flu pandemic shattered that resolve. The states closed their borders making the playing of first-class cricket impossible. Only one match took place in 1918, Victoria versus NSW in Melbourne, with two more in January 1919, one at the MCG, the other in Sydney. Other matches were postponed then abandoned. First-class cricket did not resume until November 29, 1919, at the Gabba in Brisbane. The first Shield game after the Great War began on December 19, 1919, when South Australia met NSW in Adelaide.
The War has not been kind to cycling. The League of Wheelmen wanted to resume their racing, a request that was possible only if cycling itself funded the costs of a track much damaged and installing new electric lights on poles. Trustees suggested both items “will be somewhat costly”. With that decision, cycling ceased to take place at a Ground which once offered the largest purses in the world. At the turn of the century cycling had been the biggest earner for the SCG. Now it was finished. A pre-eminent position in contemporary sport has never been a guarantee of future success.
The Ground was taking on new staff conscious that each recruit needed time to be conversant with their duties. A plumber was permanently engaged on wages but paid less when not plumbing. A large appropriation is voted for works.
Heavy rains revealed many defects in roofing, guttering and down pipes. Attention must wait until funds are available.
The Tax Office has ruled that the Entertainment Tax must be paid on behalf of members from the commencement of the football season, later clarified to require payment of the appropriate sum on two-thirds of membership subscriptions.
Alfred Meadham, caterer, offered £150 for rights to serving lunches, refreshments, wines in the grandstand which would become £200 if there were visits from football teams from New Zealand and Queensland.
Ominously, work on the Sheridan was delayed by the flu pandemic. Other ground staff are laid low with flu.
The SCG enabling bill remained a concern. Oliver and two other Trustees were intending to wait on the Minister to urge necessity. The deputation returned with a promise of financial assistance.
The salaries of Wyly and other senior staff were restored to pre-December 1915 levels.
Oliver was re-elected for another term.
Members returning from active service became honorary members with tickets of admission for the balance of the football season.
The picket fence around the SCG must be completely renewed. Advice was that patching up was a waste of time. That raised the question of cycling track around the perimeter. If it was removed and the fence was, one, partially brought forward and two, stopped short of the present track edge, the measure would both increase accommodation and add to the playing area. In yards the SCG would become 167.5 x 153. By contrast, the MCG was 190 x 165 and Adelaide 242 x 139.
Notwithstanding, the good sense of building the picket fence anew, a sub-committee decided on repairs. Trustees are not yet confident of their capital base. The cycling track was too expensive to remove. Fear was that the SCG would look dilapidated. The fear was reasonable.
Cycling did not give up. They made application to use the track. The Trustees declined in noting there was “no indication of a general revival in cycling that would justify the large expenditure” on repairing track and electric lighting plant.
NSW Police gave notice the Ground needed more exits. The Trust resolved to comply.
September was a time of reckoning. The 1919 football season had drawn 266,732 spectators for a gate of £11,907. Trustees’ share was £636.
SCG membership was recovering. Membership had reached 1182. Subscriptions returned £2299 compared to just £636 in 1917-18.
Trustees extended the suspension of the members entrance fee to November 30. Thereafter the fee became £2/2/- for town members and £1/1/- for country.
A letter from the Under-Secretary of Lands gave Trustees comfort about the finances. The Colonial Treasurer (as the NSW Treasurer was known) advised that Government was prepared to guarantee an overdraft of £5000 for six years on the condition that Trustees held themselves personally responsible for paying interest. The condition did not concern the Trustees. They decide to arrange a loan with the Commonwealth Bank at 5 per cent interest.
Choosing the Commonwealth was odd because the Trustees’ bank since the previous century unbroken had been the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney. The long-standing arrangement prevailed. The CBC offered an overdraft, the Trustees accepted. The Under-Secretary required each of the Trustees to sign the overdraft guarantee, have the document sealed and returned. Trustees complied.
The new membership year began with 819 members renewing. Sargents, having offered catering through the War, decided not to continue.
For the practice wickets, there was value in having a member of staff present to record the arrival of players. Supplying cricket balls was a difficulty. The Trustees engage a man to check the attendance of members at the wickets. Trustees manage to obtain cricket balls, if only a few.
In November the Ground adds 195 new members.
Laundry prices for cleaning towels rise. Members came to the SCG most days and took showers after practice. The laundry has doubled the charge to the SCG from 1/- per dozen to 2/- per dozen. The charge was passed on via a cost to members of 1d. for each towel from December 1.
The shoddiness of the Sheridan kept on being demonstrated from the foundations through the floor to the roof. Very bad corrosion of the roof required immediate repair, necessitating the purchase of 195 sheets of 6ft galvanised iron cut into lengths of 1ft 6 ins. Best price available was 7/3 per sheet. The Trustees require such detail before making decisions. Remember always that the Trustees of the moment regarded the SCG and surrounding lands as their precious charge. They had, after all, personally guaranteed a rather large overdraft.
The year ended with 1555 financial members. Their fees of £3095 already exceeded the income from the twelve months of 1918-19. Another 172 people become members.
1920 began with the Trustees securing the future of the Ground and its relationship with Cricket, a situation usually fraught. Chief negotiators and signatories for the Trustees (Charles Oliver) and for Cricket (John Clayton) were both Trustees.
The two parties were keen to sort out any disagreement with an Ashes tour due at the end of 1920 and continuing across much of the domestic season. Australians had not enjoyed a Test series and tour since 1911-12. That long wait had raised hunger for international cricket. Big crowds were expected at all venues.
The new cricket agreement applied from October 1, 1920. Cricket was to receive an agreed proportion of members subscriptions and entrance fees on a sliding scale once the threshold of 1000 guineas was passed. Payment was to take place on the last days of December, March, June and September accompanied by a certificate from the auditor. In the event of dispute, an independent accountant was entitled to check books and papers. Cricket check the turnstile register at beginning and end of each day.
SCG wages for ground staff was to be paid from gross takings. Every international in NSW was to be played at the SCG and not elsewhere. There were provisions for generous allocations of complimentary tickets to cricket’s administration. Nothing in the agreement was to alter or abridge the powers of Trustees. The agreement was for a term of 10 years.
Christmas had seen a restoring of gratuities to staff and a wage increase for ground staff.
Rugby league shared confidence about the future. The code offered to pay half the cost of demolishing the cycle track in exchange for the increased capacity. An innovation is reserved seating: the public can purchase guaranteed seats for a premium. Additional capacity is expected to be 10,000.
Each month new members are joining. The right to sell liquor in the grandstand and outer is sold for £450, a trebling of what was.
Surveyors were active on the consequences for the SCG perimeter once the cycle track was removed. Track material was sold to Randwick Council, some was held for roads and paths.
Charles Oliver fell ill. He died on June 14. Another powerful chairman who had served the Ground well. The Trustees passed a motion of regret, noting among other things that he had “secured harmony at deliberation of Trustees” and the possession of a “cheery optimism during the severe crisis through which the Ground passed owing to the War”.
The new chairman, elected unopposed, was Richard Teece, an actuary who had risen to the top of AMP and NSW Cricket. Teece had been deputy for years, understudy to Oliver and heir apparent. The Trustees had a strong sense of orderly succession.
Attendance has grown so strongly that a question of law is raised querying if the Trustees can refuse admission to any member even when the Members Reserve was overcrowded.
Letters regarding the right of Trustees to refuse admission if Trustees of opinion that the ground is becoming overcrowded. Trustees responded with a resolution that they will close the gates whenever they think the Ground is full. Trustees reserved the right to give instructions to police to close the Ground.
The Oliver vacancy was followed by the resignation of John Clayton as president of the NSW Cricket Association owing to ill health. Convention duly compels his resignation as a Trustee. A once and future Labor Senator is chosen to replace Oliver. Allan McDougall, boilermaker and union secretary, who was president of the NSW League of Wheelmen and a patron of the Glebe rugby league club. CW Oakes MP asked a question of the Minister for Lands about the qualifications of McDougall, being careful in his comments not to doubt the suitability of his arriving colleague. Not an easy trick to pull off.
William Percy McElhone, the new president of the Cricket Association, succeeds Clayton. McElhone was a major force in sport and politics, he was an Alderman on the City Council and the first Secretary of the Australian Board of Control. Cricket is well represented in the ranks of Trustees; or, one might observe, Trustees are well represented in cricket.
Rugby league attendance for 1920 was 366,088. Spectators paid £23,194. Trustees share was £567. Such attendances revived interest in catering. For the new contract five tenders were received.
Membership at the end of the membership year as 2069. Fees paid were £4753. Such was the growth the Trustees resolved they could impose a limit on the number of members. In November the Trustees capped membership at 2500. Motor vehicles have arrived in such numbers that the Trustees impose a charge of 2/6 for parking within the Ground. A chauffeur will be admitted to the grandstand.
A Basic Wage increase from £3/17/- to £4/5/- presented no difficulties.
1920 ended with cash reserves back where they were before the War. Funds held amount to £8995. Membership was just shy of 3000. The full riches of the Ashes tour were yet to be banked. The Ashes tour was every bit as lucrative as expected. Total dominance by the Australian XI did no harm to the gate. The opposite.
In the prosperity of the decade ahead the Trustees accumulated reserves year upon year, carefully husbanding each annual surplus. By the end of 1929 reserves reached £45,138. In the Depression that followed, spectator sport proved to be a diversion for hundreds of thousands. The emergence of a boy from Bowral and the Bodyline strategy devised to contain him packed the cricket grounds of Australia. The sports business was counter-cyclical.
At the end of 1932 cash reserves reached £73,371. During the 1930s the Trustees were able to build and furnish the MA Noble Stand out of such reserves so that, at the outbreak of the Second World War, reserves stood at £59,445. The Trustees and staff were well set for the hostilities ahead.
The Sydney Cricket Ground survived the Great War. There was no certainty that it would. Given the collapse of membership and events, the opposite outcome was the more likely. Principal reason for survival was the quality and mutual respect of the Trustees, a governance created in the nineteenth century and the dedication of ground staff and management.
This group of men had a mission – steer the Ground through collapsing income streams and the broader challenges the world was facing. These men had made a pledge at the beginning of the War that the SCG would be made available for patriotic events without hire fee. The entire gate minus wages would go to the fundraising cause. Even on the edge of the abyss in 1918, with reserves approaching zero, the Trustees honoured their pledge. These were men of honour.